I first visited the apartment of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Baghdad in 2003, during those optimistic days right after the invasion when things hadn’t yet gone so wrong and the majority of Iraqis took a wait-and-see attitude toward armed resistance. CPT had arrived in Baghdad before the invasion, and having failed to stop the war, was preparing to deal with the occupation.
At that time, most Westerners in Iraq not attached to the US military or occupation were living in places like CPT’s apartment: dwellings without armed guards or the concrete blast barriers now so common it’s hard for me to remember what the city looked like without them.
CPT’s work then consisted of trying to help families locate relatives who had been incarcerated by the US military, documenting the brutality of house raids and the increasing reports of torture and abuse coming from Iraqis who had been detained. It was accompaniment work, similar to what the group does in other countries, including the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where they walk to school with Palestinian children or follow farmers into their fields to protect them from violent Israeli settlers or harassment by the Israeli military. CPTers often refer to it as “getting in the way.”
As the violence spiraled in Iraq, CPT was on its cusp. The group was among the first to catalogue accounts of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and other US prisons around the country.
“We wrote a report on seventy-two prisoners, which we took to top US officials in Baghdad with our recommendations for change and we sent this to the Bush Administration and a few months after that it came out into the general public,” said Peggy Gish, a CPTer from Ohio who has spent eighteen months in Iraq.
The last time I visited the CPT apartment, in July of this year, they were virtually the last Westerners still living the way they had been two years prior. They were also still doing things that others eschewed: braving the route that had been nicknamed the “Highway of Death” to meet with Iraqi activists in Karbala, two hours south of Baghdad, or traveling to Falluja to chronicle the situation there after the city was mostly destroyed in November 2004.
As my colleagues were increasingly forced by their news organizations into secure hotels and to rely on foreign security advisors to tell them where it was safe to travel, I became one of the last foreign journalists willing to travel to places like Falluja or to drive to the south. The CPTers were the only other Westerners I could rely on for information on what I might expect. Going to visit CPT over the months in Baghdad often felt like finding an oasis of sanity in an ever-expanding desert of confusion, a light in the darkness. I was comfortable working the way I worked as long as I knew they were there as well.